Puerto López makes a great base for a wide range of activities, but by far the greatest draw here is the annual humpback-whale migration, mating, and breeding event, as well as Machalilla National Park . There are a host of tour agencies in town, and all the hotels here either have their own tour desk or work closely with some local tour operator. I recommend Machalilla Tours (tel. 05/2300-234 or 09/6109-185; machalillatours@yahoo.com), run by Fausto Choez Castro; or Naturis (tel. 05/2300-218; www.naturis.com.ec). In addition to whale-watching tours and visits to Isla de la Plata and Machalilla National Park, both of these operations have tour offerings ranging from surf lessons and sea-kayak trips to sport fishing and horseback riding.

If you plan on enjoying the beach right here in Puerto López, I recommend you head, in either direction, away from the center of town, where all the fishing boats -- and their detritus -- congregate. However, by far the best beach in this area is found inside the national park at Los Frailes.

Machalilla National Park includes the offshore island Isla de la Plata (Island of Silver), as well as vast tracts of forest and a couple of ancient archaeological sites. Named Isla de la Plata because Sir Francis Drake is reported to have hidden a huge treasure here, the island is located 23km (14 miles) west of Puerto López. Isla de la Plata is often considered an alternative to the Galápagos Islands, especially for those short on time or money. The bird-watching and wildlife-viewing on Isla de la Plata are top-notch: You will have the chance to see albatrosses; blue-footed, masked, and red-footed boobies; frigate birds; and sea lions, all in large numbers and all of which also live in the Galápagos. There are two major loop trails here that head around either end of the island. Each trail takes about 2 hours. Really hard-core tours will hike both of them. There are also some wonderful snorkeling spots here. All the tour agencies and hotels in town offer trips out to Isla de la Plata for around $30 (£20), including a guided hike, lunch, and snorkeling gear, but not including the park entrance fee.

On the mainland, Machalilla is made up of 55,000 hectares (135,908 acres) of mostly tropical dry forest. Within its boundaries lies Los Frailes, a long, deep crescent of beautiful beach backed by high bluffs and thick forest. Los Frailes is widely reputed to be the most beautiful beach in Ecuador, and aerial photos of this spot are common on postcards and promotional materials across the country. Be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen. You can visit Los Frailes on your own, or as part of a guided tour, which will take you to a couple of nearby archaeological sites. From the park entrance gate at Los Frailes, there is a 3.2km (2-mile) trail down to the beach.

About 10km (6 miles) north of Puerto López is the village of Agua Blanca, which has a small archaeological museum and nearby ruins. The ruins and most of the artifacts in the museum are attributed to the Manteña people, who inhabited this region from 500 B.C. until around A.D. 1500.

Admission to Machalilla National Park, which includes access to Isla de la Plata, is $20 (£13). If you're just going to the island, the entrance fee is $15 (£10). A day pass to visit only Los Frailes costs $5 (£3.35). If you sign on for a tour, your tour operator will handle the park passes for you. If not, head to the national park office (tel. 05/2300-170) in Puerto López, on Calle Eloy Alfaro, a half-block east of the main market. The office is open Monday through Saturday from 8am to 5pm.

Having a Whale of a Time

If you are lucky enough to find yourself traveling between late June and early October, you have an excellent chance of catching the marvel of this coast's annual humpback whale-mating celebration. Each year, Ecuador welcomes a large population of humpback whales, which migrate from the chilly polar waters of Antarctica. Arriving off the Ecuadorean coast in June, pregnant mothers promptly give birth, while single adults find a mating partner for the next 4 months.

Humpback whales grow to about 16m (52 ft.) in length and can weigh between 30 and 50 tons. The babies are born about 3 to 4.5m long (9 3/4-15 ft.) and can weigh over 2 tons. The Pacific humpback whales -- called ballenas jorobadas in Ecuador -- are an especially acrobatic species, and it's not uncommon to see them breach, wave their tail fins, or even pop their heads up for a look around. It is believed that their acrobatics may be a part of their mating dance.

Humpbacks have been known to travel up to 8,050km (5,002 miles) each way on their annual breeding and feeding excursions. Because calves (young whales) aren't born with blubber, a protective layer of fat, they need to be birthed and reared in the warmer tropical waters, feeding on as much as 100 pounds of their mother's milk each day in order to develop the protective fatty layer of insulation necessary for survival. A female humpback will calve approximately every 2 to 3 years.

Humpbacks can travel at a speed of 8 to 14kmph (5-8 3/4 mph). But during long journeys, they average only 1.6kmph (1 mph), stopping to rest and socialize along the way. They navigate back to the freezing waters to feast on crustaceans and small fish. While in the warmer, tropical waters, they don't eat at all -- but live off their blubber.

During the whale-watching months, all the hotels and tour agencies in town offer outings to see these magnificent mammals up close. Most charge $20 to $30 (£13-£20). Some of the trips combine whale-watching time with a visit to Isla de la Plata. But be careful -- the boats are small and the water can be rough. If you're prone to seasickness, be sure to take some sort of anti-motion-sickness medication before you board the boat.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.